Taking “C.A.R.E.” of Your Interpersonal Relationships

Taking “C.A.R.E.” of Your Interpersonal Relationships

The first of the articles in this series of four articles was designed to furnish you with an understanding of the history of chronic loneliness and a discussion of how it differs from the everyday loneliness we all feel from time to time. The second article provided you with the UCLA Loneliness Scale and directions on how to use it so that you could assess the current quality of your overall connectivity with others in your life. The third article provided yet another analytical tool. This relational assessment chart provided you with the tool you need to look at how each of the key relationships in your life is currently functioning. In this fourth and final installment, we'll explore how you can use the data you have derived from the two assessment tools to upgrade your relational skills, enhance your existing relationships, and set out productively to create new, healthy friendships.

As you know from the just previous article, Dr. Amy Banks, who developed the "Relational Assessment" mode of relational therapy, explains that when we are involved with another person in a secure, effective relationship, our brain secretes biochemical agents to reward us for having derived from our relationship a sense of calm, a feeling of acceptance, a mutual resonance, and a source of energy. These are the same four categories probed by the half-dozen questions you were asked to answer for each of your key relationships. What we want to accomplish in this article is explore what you might do in each of these categories to up your relational game: how might each of us set out to improve how well we get on with those among whom we live?

Actively Searching for Calm

When a relationship does not feel calming and soothing, we may become tense and anxious in that person's presence. It is essentially impossible to relax because, at some level, we do not feel safe. Our body reacts to the rebuff we sense, and this engenders significant physiological effects: our breathing, our digestion, our blood flow, our sweat gland activity, our level of muscular tension, and our brain wave patterns are all measurably altered in response. At the extreme, we become defensive or angry—often too quickly and without a reasonable, precipitating cause. These abrasive relationships make life feel harsher and more discordant. In response, some of us withdraw and cut back from relying on interpersonal relationships to provide a safe space where we can absorb the nurturing and regeneration we each so sorely need.

If you look back over your relational assessment chart answers that you produced from my just previous article, you will be able to assess how calm you feel (or don't feel) in the presence of each of your relationships. Suppose one or several relationships scored particularly low in this aspect of relational qualities. In that case, those relationships need to be addressed if you decrease the stress they are producing in your life. And you may need to decide if a given relationship is worth continuing at all, all factors considered. Just as a medical doctor might amputate a limb to save a patient's life, there are times when you may need to end a relationship to achieve the calm required to maintain your mental health. Calm relational space is to mental health what deep rem sleep is to physical health.

Of course, there is a middle ground between allowing a tension-filled relationship to continue unabated and scrapping it entirely. You can also subtly reduce your exposure to the worst elements of an unrewarding but inescapable relationship by decreasing the time spent with the person involved while increasing the time spent with your other, more calming relationships. And, if circumstances don't allow you to limit the actual time spent with a given tension-inducing relationship, you can use conversational management techniques to improve the tone and tenor of your interactions with the person in question. One obvious technique is to avoid escalating hot-button topics that are likely to increase emotional tension. Think about Tai Chi—the slow-motion martial art whose practitioners avoid directly blocking an incoming punch or kick in favor of stepping back or turning out of the path of the incoming blow. Conversational Tai Chi borrows from this logic. When dealing with a grating but unavoidable relationship, try to avoid directly countering incoming aggressive remarks by verbally stepping aside. For example, rather than electing to argue with an aggressive remark, try responding with something benign like "I hear what you are saying" or "I see your point of view," and leave it at that.

There are a host of additional interpersonal communication techniques you can employ. For example, you might consciously think about trying to make more significant, longer eye contact—even with a little smile—with people in your close circle who bring tension into your life. Try listening more closely to what they have to say, and try to refrain from pre-planning your response while they are still speaking. Try asking follow-up or clarification questions; people love being heard out, and they will often reward you with more warmth in the future and, therefore, with more calm. Yet another technique for promoting calmer conversations is to be strategic about the flow of conversational patterns. For example, if your difficult interlocutor is raving about a recently seen film, instead of responding, "Oh, I saw a good one too," (which can be interpreted as competitive one-upping), try replying with "Really, tell me more about why you liked it so much."

Occasionally, truly difficult moments in stressful but unavoidable relationships call for escapism. No way around it. At such moments, consider spending a few moments thinking about the people in your life who do bring you calm. Dr. Banks stresses the technique of employing "positive relational moments" (PRMs) for their remarkable ability to relax the body and calm the spirit. Her concept is simple but effective. Select one (or several) of the relationships you gave scores of four or five on the assessment questions concerning calm. Then select one (or several) especially wonderful memories in each such relationship where joyful connection flowed openly and palpably between you. These PRM memories constitute a kind of body-mind "memory pill" you can "pop" when you feel a wave of stress and tension breaking over you in the presence of someone who causes you stress. We know from a host of empirical studies that when you concentrate, even briefly, on a PRM, there are calming effects throughout your physiology—your breathing slows and deepens, your brain waves change in frequency and amplification, and the muscles in your shoulders and neck relax. So, try practicing and employing this simple technique as an antidote to stressful interactions, especially when tension is maximal.

There are many other techniques for dealing with the fallout of the stress that comes from unhealthy relationships that you can't avoid, including steps as simple as finding the time to immerse yourself outside the relationship in calming activities. Meditation, yoga, neurofeedback therapy, relaxation CDs, and massage therapy are among the scores of practices you can tap into to generate the calm space we each need for emotional well-being and mental health.

One final note on this subtopic. When you look back at your relational assessment chart, you see that all or any of your principal relationships produce more stress than calm. Perhaps you need to consider whether the problem lies in your relational skills. It's one thing not to trust people who aren't trustworthy with your feelings—that makes perfectly good sense. But it's quite another thing to discover that you are not emotionally trusting of others in general. We know that those abused or seriously neglected in their formative years can manifest this generalized inability to derive a feeling of calm from their relationships. So, if your relational assessment chart tells you that you are not achieving a significant degree of calm with any or with only a few of the relationships you analyzed, it may be time for you to deal therapeutically with the underlying faulty construction (or traumatic deconstruction) of your relational pathways of connection. Professional clinical help may be a good idea if you are ready to explore why your interactions with others consistently produce anxiety and tension instead of a decent measure of calm and relaxation.

Feeling More Accepted

Very few can feel calm when we feel rejected, banished, or shunned—or even when we feel only marginally rejected or merely tolerated. We, humans, are profoundly social animals, and feeling excluded from the in-crowd is a painful circumstance. And we are talking about very real pain. Let's be clear: a broken arm doesn't hurt nearly as much—nor anywhere near so long-- as a broken heart. This explains, no doubt, while many opera arias have been composed about the latter, one about the former is nary. It is by no means an accident that one of the principal punishments for serious anti-social behavior in medieval Europe was to simply place the perpetrator outside the town walls and banish him for life.

So, when you look over your responses to questions seven through eleven on Dr. Banks' Relational Assessment Chart, you will quickly perceive whether—and with whom—you feel unsafe to disagree, or you feel like you don't belong, or  you feel that you are not being treated as an equal, or you feel undervalued, or you ascertain that you do all or most of the "giving" and precious little of the "taking." In such cases, it's high time for corrective action. 

Logically, there are only two approaches to dealing with relationships where your questionnaire scoring tells you that you do not feel wholly welcome or where you feel that you dare not fully speak your mind. Repair or replace. It's that simple. Remember, unlike other relational qualities, even if you express your misgivings about feeling like you're always an outsider, there might be little that others are able or willing to do to assuage your feelings. Accordingly, in this aspect of interpersonal relationships, it is critical to be wholly honest with oneself because it is hard—and sometimes impossible—to increase your acceptance if your rejection is in part a function of deep structures that are operating against you. Sometimes, objective underlying differences, such as when you are socially, financially, or politically at odds with others who do not fully include you, are unlikely to be overcome.

So, that leaves replacement—where you recognize and admit to yourself your pervasive feelings of estrangement and distance, and you set out to make new connections with others with whom you are not at odds in some underlying sphere of life. Here, there is some good news: the other side of the coin of finding ourselves living in a disjointed, highly mobile society where many of us spend a great deal of time with strangers—and even less with our siblings, cousins, and childhood friends—is that we are perfectly free to make new and significant relationships. Relational therapists who work with chronically disconnected, lonely individuals often counsel their clients to pick a voluntary organization in a field of their interest and then purposefully make new connections with their new hobby-mates. There is a guaranteed underlying commonality of interests in such a venture, and clinical coaching can help such individuals dare to reach out to form new friendships—even notwithstanding the attendant risk of rejection.

Enhancing Resonance Skills

Interpreting other people's intentions, behavior and feelings—mirroring—allows us to resonate with them without directly focusing on the task of doing so. This is an important relational skill. Those who have underdeveloped senses of mirroring may experience others as puzzling, or you may misinterpret how angry or aggressive others are toward them or how attracted others are to them.

Again, think of the mirroring we observe when we come upon feral animals doing their mirroring. They, of course, operate without words and word-based thought processes, having to rely solely on their sensation-based sense of mirroring. We humans, in contrast, by adding worded thought to the somatic mirroring of earlier species, bring entirely new levels of subtlety to our mirroring. We can feel what it is like to be the other, which has allowed humans to develop the capacity of empathy, which with very few exceptions, does not exist in other species. Through this singular human capacity, we can empathize—that we can appreciate that others experience just what we do. We grasp and accept, for example, that enemy soldiers also experience love and connection with their families and friends. But while the capacity for sophisticated mirroring is inherent in being born human, mirroring skills need to be learned and honed. Small children, for instance, need to be taught by their parents that other children experience the same needs and emotions that they do; that's what all the lessons about sharing and being considerate of the feelings of another child are all about. Adults with grossly underdeveloped mirroring capacities suffer from "narcissism," a highly debilitating personality disorder.

Human mirroring occurs with all six basic human emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Numerous studies have documented the nearly universal capacity each of us has to recognize these emotions in the facial expressions of strangers. However, we vary widely in the degree of subtlety we each bring to the task of mirroring.

Those among us who are the most skillful at mirroring go well beyond merely recognizing the basic emotion the other person is exhibiting: they manage to distinguish the subtle sub-emotions that make up each of the basic emotions. Take, for example, what someone particularly skilled at mirroring might sense when confronting the emotion of anger: they can detect whether they are looking at displeasure, frustration, irritation, annoyance, disappointment, impatience, aggravation, exasperation, dissatisfaction, or anger, or resentment, or crossness, or infuriation, or wrath, or anger, or ire, or fury, or rage. These are not synonyms for the word "anger." Each of these terms describes a different sub-emotion of "anger," and correctly interpreting (through mirroring) whether a person you have wronged is merely upset with you—or whether they feel rageful toward you—could make all the difference in the world in determining what your appropriate next step should be.

Just as we have unpacked "anger," each of the other human emotions can be broken down into many sub-emotions. Getting the "right" by skillful mirroring is just as important. In our culture, I am forced to admit, that most men are considerably less skillful at mirroring than most women. Perhaps this is because women tend to speak far more often with each other about their feelings and emotions than most men. It's like color words, another sphere where women seem to far outdo men. If you are limited to describing a sunset as "pink," you are verbally hampered as compared to someone who might look at the same evening sky and call it cerise, or carnation, or salmon, or claret, or rosy, or cherry, or garnet, or scarlet, or ruby, or fuchsia, or magenta.

So, the question for this essay becomes, how do all of us—and perhaps men in particular—go about improving the mirroring aspect of our connective skills? Here are a few techniques to work with:

Being with others physically, or at least visibly, is important because it is only when you see the person with whom you are speaking that you can practice and refine your mirroring skills. So, think about upgrading the level of interpersonal interaction whenever you can: don't text when you can talk. Don't talk when you can have a video call. And don't have a video call when you can get together. The more of your interactions that involve seeing each other, the more information you'll have to work with, and the more helpful your sense of mirroring can be in interpreting what is being verbally expressed.

Yet another suggestion: in the right conversational circumstances, think about openly checking in to determine if what you are reading and sensing about the other person's emotions and intentions is accurate. Perhaps think of a metaphor: when any of us set out to improve our skills in a new field of endeavor, we openly ask our instructors and more experienced co-practitioners, "Did I do that right?" Equivalently, think about daring to take the opportunity to do this with respect to mirroring when circumstances allow. In other words, think about asking, "If I'm not mistaken, you seemed upset when you talked about X. How are you doing with that; are you all right?" 

Searching for Enhanced Energy Through Connection with Others

We are all Pavlov's dogs. Just as the famous physiologist used rewards to condition dogs to perform various actions, we humans are biochemically rewarded when we undertake activities that sustain our subsistence and the survival of our species. This same biochemical reward system is present in other animals, of course. It drives both them and us to undertake life-sustaining actions, including tracking down potable water, locating nourishing food, connecting with others of our species, and procreating and raising the next generation.

Recent research has pinpointed how this biochemical reward system operates. Our brains release "feel-good," neurochemical substances (principally, dopamine, serotonin, and the endogenous opioids) when we accomplish any of the above-listed life and species-sustaining activities. One such rewarded behavior is particularly relevant for our discussion in this essay: we are biochemically rewarded when we successfully connect with another person. And nowhere is this more visible than in human parenting.

Raising a human baby is all about cuddling, cooing, stroking, kissing, hugging, nurturing, training, educating, and caring for a child who is entirely dependent on its parents for over a decade. And all those years of loving care that capable parents give their children have a powerful neurophysiological effect on the child's brain. We now know from brain imaging studies that successful human parenting biochemically forms the neural pathways of connection that children will subsequently use when making their first friends. In other words, the feel-good chemical rush to a child during child-raising trains the child to search out and make connections with others and crave and savor their soothing touch. So, loving parenting both motivates and equips children to set out in life to connect deeply with others. This constructed linkage of soothing connection to the pleasurable rush of serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids, is as important to children's future mental health as it is to their physical survival. Birds learn to fly, or they perish; humans learn to connect, or they perish. Our parents train us to search out friendship and love, and when well raised and not subsequently traumatized, we are addicted to the chemical rush that comes upon us when we spend time with a loving partner or a dear friend.

So, if you look back at the four questions in your relational assessment exercise that prodded you to think about who in your life gives you this feeling of being energized—and who does not—you might get some hints about whom you should endeavor to spend more time with, and whom less. And, if you find that you gave very few fours and fives in this category to your relationships, you might want to think about working on improving and deepening the connections with others that you currently have, as well as strategically set out to create new relationships that are designed from square one to provide you with your fair share of excitement and enthusiasm.

A word of caution. As discussed above, a lovingly raised child has been trained to seek the pleasures of his feel-good dopamine and endogenous opioid reward system by spending time with others who energize and stimulate him. But we were not all lovingly raised, and even for those of us who were, we may have experienced harsh and traumatizing factors in our lives that may have broken this linkage. The challenge for many among us is to reconnect our chemical reward system to healthy relationships instead of seeking substitute stimulation elsewhere.

Finally, a few words for those whose scores on the final four questions of the relational assessment chart were particularly low across all, or nearly all, of your assessed relationships. Unfortunately, it is possible to have been so unlovingly parented, so profoundly abused during childhood, or so significantly traumatized that your feel-good chemical reward system is not at all or only very loosely attached to your finding successful connections with others. If this is true for you, professional clinical help may provide an opportunity to retrain your connective skills. Relational and trauma therapy techniques have advanced spectacularly in recent years, and I strongly recommend professional counseling for individuals deeply troubled when they take a hard look at their flawed and unfulfilling relationships. Suppose you discovered or confirmed through the relationship assessment process outlined in this series of essays that a great deal of your emotional energy comes not from your relationships with others but substitute replacement stimulation activities. In that case, this may well be the time for a professional intervention if you are to avoid the perils of a potential descent into the dark and pain-filled world inhabited by the chronically lonely.

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